Balance-of-power diplomacy, dictated by raisons d’état, is often held up as the antithesis of an idealist foreign policy. That is the argument of such histories of American foreign policy as Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy (1994) and Peter Rodman’s More Precious than Peace (1994).
Rubio, informed by Kagan’s work, believes that realist foreign policies can and should be founded on idealist principles. The problem is whether a majority of the people can be drawn to support the realist policy. And, as Rubio has argued, that is a matter of leadership, and “public judgment.”
The greatest test for Rubio’s emerging vision of foreign policy is still the Arab Spring. It is certainly true, as Rubio said at Brookings, that “The expansion and success of political and economic freedom is critical to our interests in every region of the world.”
The question, however, is how best to achieve the success of free institutions. Rubio believes that “because governments that rule by the consent of the governed must be responsive to the material needs and demands of their people, they are less likely to engage in costly confrontations that harm their economies and deprive their people of the opportunity to improve their circumstances.”
The years ahead will show whether the Muslim world can manage to make democracy work. On the one hand you have the argument Rubio has made, that the desire to satisfy people’s economic needs will give the Muslim world’s new leaders a stake in democratic institutions. This view was buttressed by Reuel Marc Gerecht in the Wall Street Journal recently, when he argued that the sometimes violent factionalism of government by assemblies can produce stable democratic institutions, as indeed happened in our own history. On the other hand is the fact that democracy attends upon the acceptance of democratic values such as compromise, rule of law, and self-reliance — values woefully lacking in Muslim societies.
Here we arrive at the intersection of domestic and foreign policy. How can we champion political and economic freedom abroad when our own democracy often seems incapable of escaping the tantalizing clutches of the entitlement state? The Democratic party has abandoned the free-society New Left philosophy of the 1990s and seems increasingly committed to forging a coalition of rent-seekers bent on confiscating the property of others for their own benefit, in the name of “social justice.” That is the essence of Obama’s agenda, and of his political strategy. Hence Rubio’s insight that maintaining our influence abroad will require us to “confront and solve the pressing domestic challenges of our time.”
The most remarkable thing about Rubio’s emerging foreign-policy vision is its hopefulness. He is essentially an optimist, always willing to see the glass half full.
Paradoxically, that’s part of what makes him a realist when it comes to the imperative of American leadership abroad. The world isn’t perfect, but it’s much better than it would have been without us. And it could be much better still — but it won’t be without us.
— Mario Loyola is a former foreign-policy counsel to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.